Cathy McKeown is an occupational therapist at the Children's Center at UCP (United Cerebral Palsy), a special education school in Commack for children from birth to age 21.
1. The Children's Center at UCP in Commack, and other 853 Schools across the state, play a special role in New York's educational landscape. Why are 853 Schools so important?
These schools serve students with disabilities. Many of the students in my school have complex physical and medical needs and cannot have their educational needs met in a mainstream school environment. Schools like UCP play an important role in caring for students with complex and intense needs because we have the staff, equipment and expertise to help these students thrive.
When visitors come to our school, whether it's someone from the child's home school district, a community member looking to volunteer, or even a politician, they are often surprised at how we work with these children. For the parents of our students, it might be the only time they are around children who may have the same challenges as their own child. I believe that breaks the barriers of isolation they may feel. We provide support and understanding to the parents of the children who come to our school.
2. Employees at 853 Schools confront unique challenges. How has your union helped its members meet those challenges?
Most 853 Schools are part of nonprofit organizations that depend heavily on federal and state funding. The employees in 853 Schools do not enjoy pensions, or the salaries those working in a school district would receive. These schools also tend to be smaller. The union advocates for higher salaries. NYSUT also holds special workshops on safety and political advocacy that have helped increase awareness of when our agencies get their funding so we can negotiate for our fair share. Many 853 Schools receive only small increases in funding that often do not keep up with the high cost of programs. This affects what we can do for these special children, and impacts our salaries. I am not sure our state legislators fully understand what we do, and that is why it's important to have NYSUT advocate for our schools.
3. Not all educators at 853 Schools are organized. What would union representation bring to those workers?
Being organized, you have a voice. Having a union on your side is essential when advocating for a living wage. Also, there are unique safety issues that stem from the type of physical work that is done, and there are safety issues that can stem from being short-staffed, too. The union can hold the agency accountable. For example, I went to one NYSUT workshop on making sure the physical environment of my school is on par, and learned what can be done if someone gets hurt.
4. What was the evolution of your own unionism and increased involvement?
I was really growing weary of working short-staffed, and working with an unrealistically large caseload. I wanted to improve my wages. I wanted to be a part of the process of negotiating the best contract. I think it's important to be involved and let your voice be heard. Just paying union dues and expecting things to happen was not working for me.
5. You've met with state lawmakers and advocated for Special Act and 853 Schools. What must Albany do to ensure that Special Act and 853 Schools are able to fulfill their mission successfully?
When I went to the Committee of 100, I felt the legislators had a good idea of the needs of school districts for "regular" education, but had no idea what schools for students with profound needs do. The state's special education 853 Schools need to be just as well-funded as traditional schools. Kids attending 853 Schools need more specialized care and equipment, and that does not come cheaply. The staffers who work at these schools are dedicated, but they often hold other jobs just to get by. In some cases, 853 Schools can provide support to preschoolers with developmental delays and provide early intervention. That may save the school district money later on. I would say to lawmakers: Don't forget about schools for children with disabilities. We are in your communities.